Monday, October 31, 2011

Seven Billion

In 1999 I got in trouble with my then twelve year old daughter, Emily, because I blabbed to the congregation that she had sat on my knee and watched with me as the population of the planet reached six billion. It was a very uncool thing for the dad of a twelve year old to do! It is estimated that today the population will reach seven billion, a staggering almost incomprehensible number of human being consuming all manner of goods and living longer than ever to boot. For some of us 1999 was just a blink ago so the increase in population is all the more sobering.

Someone commented to me not long ago that it seems that natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes seem to be affecting populated areas more than they could recall in the past. My response was that it really makes sense. There are fewer and fewer places on Earth where we humans aren't, so these scary events that go bump in the night are going to affect us, particularly in the countries where people take the risk of living along coastlines.

When I was born in October of 1954 I was the two billionth, seven hundred and third five millionth person (approx.) alive at that moment. I am not a mathematician but doesn't that mean the human population has increased by more than one hundred and fifty percent since then? Calculate for yourself at

There are a number of writers who suggest that not only is living simply an imperative for people of faith but voluntarily choosing smaller families is as well. This ethical discussion is something that the biblical writers just couldn't have anticipated, but perhaps loving our neighbour includes our own efforts not to crowd the neighbourhood.

What are your thoughts on this mind-boggling subject?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sinners and Saints

This morning we acknowledged All Saints Day even though it isn't until Tuesday. The Druidic Celts of yore believed that this is a "thin" time of the year when the membrane between this life and the next is permeable. Samhain was coopted by Christians to become Hallowe'en, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. We remember those who have died in the past twelve months and I often speak about our notions of saintliness. Again today I affirmed the "communion of saints" conviction that we are saints without haloes, ordinary people called into an extraordinary life of discipleship with Christ.

Last week I stumbled upon a website for a church plant in Denver called the House for All Sinners and Saints. This really appeals to me, even though I don't really know what the congregation is like.

I am intrigued by their opening statement:

House for All Sinners and Saints' is a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient - future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination...

That's a lot to chew on! It does seem to me that rather than venerating certain saintly superstars we recognize both our fallenness and faithfulness.

Any thoughts about the earthy approach to sainthood?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How Sweet the Sound

Praise is remarkable. The spoken word has its power but praise in the form of singing can transport us to another reality. In many mainline churches that singing can be rather tame and predictable and earthbound rather than "high and lifted up."

Last night nine finalist choirs "sang off" in the Verizon How Sweet the Sound choir competition in Los Angeles. Something tells me that these choirs were animated if past winners are any indication. Last year's champions must travel with their own chiropractor and defibrilator!

We might not want to go to quite the extent of these choirs, but they do catch our attention. What do you think holds us back from unfettered praise? What is the difference between giving God the glory and hogging it for ourselves? We love our choirs but could we use a "praise transplant" in our congregations? There are lots of choir members and a choir director as readers, so can I get a witness?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Defining Freedom

In Regina both the definition of hateful speech and freedom of speech are on trial along with Bill Whatcott, a fundamentalist Christian who has concluded that it is mission in life to publicly condemn homosexuality. Whatcott has been charged by the Saskatchewan human rights commission with hate speech, which is illegal. Whatcott and his lawyer, Tom Shuck are arguing that he has the right to express a traditional Christian tenet that homosexuality violates God's law.

"The problem that I have and many others in the Christian community (have), is that this law is being used to charge Christians - Christians who have a different view as to what is right and wrong on sexual behaviour and in particular same-sex sexual behaviour," Schuck said Friday in a phone interview from his office in Weyburn, Sask.

"The argument is that our Constitution, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, gives all Canadians the freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion. And the utilization of human rights commissions to stop someone from saying that same-sex sexual activity is wrong infringes on all three of those charter rights."

There are people who are defending Whatcott's right to pass out his pamphlets and walk around with his placards even though they vehemently disagree with his views. They see this as fundamental (no pun intended) in a free and democratic society. My feeling is that his actions are not consistent with the gospel, and every freedom has its limits, but I am conflicted on this one.

Have you followed this story? Where are you on this one?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jesus on Wall St.

On Sunday I began my message by referring to the Occupy movement which went global two weekends ago. Whether we think Occupy is the fresh new face of democracy or a naiive and fleeting attempt at challenging the "principalities and powers" it has caught our attention. I was linking the movement to the passage from the book of Leviticus for the day which tells us to avoid idols, treat rich and poor equally, and love our neighbours. In the gospel passage from Matthew Jesus says that the Great Commandment is to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves, the latter part being a scripture shout out to Leviticus

Since Sunday I have seen more images from Occupy rallies that demonstrate a lot of creativity, including the ones above with a Christian theme. Who knows, maybe the movement won't just fade away, although winter is coming.

Take a look at this article by Walter Brueggemann, esteemed Old Testament scholar for his reflection on the broken covenant in the United States.

What do you think a month along?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

It Won't Go Away!

Is it just because we did our End of Life/Funeral Planning seminars that I am noticing related material all over the place? The Religion and Ethics website had this interesting piece on a community that has really got on board with Advanced Care Directives, one of the things we brought to people's attention on October 11th

On the CBC radio program White Coat, Black Art there are a couple of worthwhile conversations about End of Life issues in the same episode.

Fess up, do you know what an Advanced Care Plan is? Did the seminar prompt you to fill one out, or did you lie down until the feeling went away? Do you think that by not having one you are keeping death at arm's length?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


In recent weeks I have been involved in several intense conversations with different members of the congregation about the mental health of loved ones. In a couple of situations the health of these family members has deteriorated to the point where they are at risk to themselves and possibly others. Part of the frustration is that laws which were implemented to protect the individual do exactly the opposite when mental health is severely compromised. Individuals who have lost touch with reality are still in charge of their own destiny until something catastrophic happens. Meanwhile the people who care about them most are left trying to provide practical support and to seek help, essentially in the dark.

We have just passed World Mental Health Day (October 10 see poster above) but I have come to the conclusion that the mental health care system in this province is insane. At times I can barely contain my anger as I see how everyone involved suffers. The mentally ill person is in indescribable anguish. The health and wellbeing of family members deteriorates and the strain tests even the most loving of families. The pathways in the system as they are today are essentially a maze which defeat everyone involved. I am waiting for someone to describe a situation where they feel well served by the mental health system.

While I know this sounds rather bleak I don't know how else to say this and be honest. Perhaps there will be changes which address the whole person including that person's family support system. In the meantime communities of faith need to be vigilant in supporting those who are suffering and create a climate in which folk are not afraid of being stigmatized by the reality of mental illness in their lives.

I try to remind myself that Jesus was a healer, including those who were outcasts because of their "demons." We can walk with our friends and pray for them, even when they feel that they are beyond prayer.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Flowery Grace

Still, no killing frost in our part of Southern Ontario, although a couple of nights ago it was close. It means that flowers are still in bloom, a real gift as we approach the end of October.

In the Spring Ruth planted several Black-eyed Susan vines around our veranda and they really didn't do all that well, at least in the first couple of months. Yet when we came back from vacation in early September one vine had taken off, as though it was waiting until we were away to break into the house. All through the Fall it has extended across our front steps to the point we have to step gingerly to avoid doing damage.

Many people comment to us and ask the name of the plant. The folk who own the store across the street say that customers regularly look out their front window and strike up a conversation about what they see.

These vines are grace embodied, that gift which keeps on giving by unexpectedly doing what they are meant to do. Children often exhibit that grace and so do our campanion animals. We are delighted by their ability to bring light into our lives simply by being who they are.

Comments? Examples?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waking up Baptism

This morning we baptised three beautiful babies, one only a little over a month old. We have been working at making baptism more watery, using various visuals to help us out. We have a glass bowl which extends above the level of the font so the water is visible as it is poured and during the baptisms. The blue cloth flows down from the font as a reminder that water flows -- baptism isn't a stagnant sacrament. We are people of the Christ who is Living Water.

We also include children from the congregation, asking a different child to pour the water each time, an honour they beg for! And from time to time all the kids get to add water. Do you see the clear film canisters atop the font? Each child is given one as they enter the sanctuary and all of them come to the front before the baptism to add the water warmed in their little hands.

How do you feel about altering the symbolism to "wake up" this sacrament? Do you have a child who participated? What do you do in your church?

Friday, October 21, 2011


I find that I need to go back and check past blogs from time to time because folk comment after the first couple of days, often with interesting reflections which probably get missed by those who read day by day. During Creation Time Nancy gave us links out of her work as a teacher that were really worthwhile. SJD offered a neat bunny-dog encounter in his backyard after our Blessing of the Animals service.

I noticed yesterday that a reader offered a link which is bubbling with unusual, kinetic creativity. Our bible begins with creation and you if you have read for a while you know that I believe there is a strong connection between the artistic spirit and life in the Spirit. So take a click and a look:


Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Living Word

I wasn't aware until yesterday that a remarkable and monumental project was completed earlier this year. The St. John's bible is the first illuminated manuscript of the entire bible created since the invention of moveable type 500 years ago. that time every bible was painstakingly copied by hand. The most elaborate were those with illustrations or illuminations. We probably all have images in our minds of monks hunched over manuscripts with quills and inkpots.

This bible was about fifteen years in the making and the calligraphy and illustrations created by a team of artists are remarkable. While the techniques are hundreds of years old, there are images of 911 and the Japan tsunami within its more than 1,000 pages, giving it a contemporary feel.

Is this project a waste of time and money given the easy accessibility to printed bibles? Would you like to see the finished project? Might it encourage interest in the bible?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Multi-Cultural, Multi-Religious

There are subjects which catch my attention, don't fit the schedule of my blog, then leave me wondering if I should return to them when they are no longer in the public eye. An example is the kerfuffle a few weeks ago about prayer for Muslim students in Toronto board schools. The request was/is to let Muslim students observe the daily prayer schedule during the school day. Some critics saw this as a dangerous precedent in a public school system which is non-sectarian. Some Christians objected because prayers such as the Lord's Prayer can no longer be repeated collectively and even Christian groups who want to meet in school space feel marginalized. There were demonstrations outside some schools and board offices and at times it got ugly.

It is a touchy subject --isn't that often the case with religion?-- and not easily resolved. I feel Christian groups as well as other religious groups should have the right to meet and pray at lunch hours and after school. And the argument that we withhold something from someone else because we can't have it doesn't seem all that charitable.

This is also about truly listening to those from different religious traditions. Prayer is one of the pillars of Islam and many workplaces now allow Muslim employees to take a few moments for prayer at the specified times. The reason the mosque in Courtice is situated there is because OPG employees wanted a site where they could slip away on their lunch hour and breaks for faithful observance. I have commented to people that I wish Christians were that dedicated to prayer!

Still, this shows the challenges of our multi-cultural and multi-religious society. Some schools in the TDSB are 80% Muslim.

What are your thoughts on this one?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Still Gathering

"And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded." Matthew 10:42

Last Friday evening the monthly community meal called The Gathering Place attracted the largest group of guests since we began -- well over 100 people. It was a rainy evening but people were lined up outside well before the doors usually open. We let them in early and soon the St. Paul's hall was filled with conversation and laughter. Before we began we sang Happy Birthday to one of the regulars and as always one of the pastors from a participating congregation said the blessing.

This time we recruited servers from St. Paul's as we begin a rotation of assistance from the different churches. We already have a dedicated core group from our congregation who work with regulars from several other church families. On Friday nine or ten of our youth and six or seven adults served. One of the teens has volunteered at an Oshawa community meal where they serve a lot more people, cafeteria style, and he commented to his parents that he liked how people at The Gathering Place are served their food on nice plates. The room was decorated with a Fall theme and it was yet another excellent meal with turkey and ham.

I noticed Friday that some of the guests who tend to be, well, monosyllabic, spoke to me and smiled. Building trust and familiarity doesn't happen overnight. I was pleased that representatives from several congregations came to see how this all unfolds. One was a woman who wondered recently if all the people who show up really need this meal. Our administrator, Helen, told her that anyone who comes is treated equally, because they have chosen to be there. There is no means test. We continue our commitment to dignity and hospitality in Christ's name for whomever comes.

Several blog readers have volunteered over this past year. Any comments? Thoughts from others?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Out of the Gloom

Off I went this morning when it was still gloomy and the traffic heavy with commuters. My goal was Second Marsh, the wetland jewel between Canada's busiest highway and Lake Ontario. Sometimes I don't have the energy to go for a walk and yet I sense that it is exactly what I need for my spirit.

We are getting to that time when birds are staging for the flight to milder climes and today I saw more blue herons together than I can recall -- somewhere around twenty. Some flapped lazily away from my approach, others seemed oblivious to my presence. A couple of trumpeter swans flew directly overhead and honked so loudly at that moment I was startled. It was a calm morning yet the water of Lake Ontario was so lively from the windy weekend that the waves kept me from walking the beach.

My mind raced with the busyness of this Fall season. Literally hours after our return from Colorado in early September I was into the fray and the activity of our congregation has not relented. Today I told myself to receive the gift of the setting I found myself in, to see and hear the creatures around me. After all, Jesus instructed us to ponder the birds of the airs and the wildflowers if we desire balance.

When I did open myself to the moment I thought of a blue heron I photographed when I was on restorative leave three and a half years ago. Not far from the remote farmhouse I holed up in for a couple of months was a series of rapids or chutes of the Mississippi River (the Ontario one.) The heron was as still and focussed as any that one might see in a tranquil pond. This heron was standing in an eddy, fishing intently, oblivious to the roar and rush of the water. The image above is my computer home page to serve as a reminder that I can find ways to be spiritual ly still in the turbulence if it is my heart's desire. It has been there long enough that I take it for granted. To my peril.

On the walk back out two white tailed deer bounded across the trail, effortlessly cleared a stream and disappeared into the woods. I realized that they had followed a trail I hadn't noticed on my walk to the lake. A third deer stood in the trees from which the others had emerged. There is a setting of Psalm 42 which begins:

As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after You.

You alone are my heart's desire, and I long to worship You.

You alone are my strength, my shield; to You alone may my spirit yield.

You alone are my heart's desire, and I long to worship You.

I'm not big on "signs and portents" but the herons and the deer did speak to me today.

It is a challenge to keep your life and spirit in balance? Do you ever feel the "tyranny of the urgent" takes over? What do you do to re-establish equilibrium?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Duly Nudged

During long-time member Doug Kemp's funeral service in September I drew the large congregation's attention to the food box at the front of the sanctuary. I put it there and two well-meaning ushers started to remove it before the service began, thinking it was out of place. I told everyone that Doug regularly gave me what I will kindly call a pep talk, convinced that it should always be full as our St. Paul's support for the Salvation Army Food Bank. I challenged folk at the service and during worship to fill the two boxes we have in the church in memory of Doug. I commented that if we didn't, I might be hearing his voice in the night.
Another St. Paul's Doug, Hately, faithfully picks up our food contributions and transports them over to the Army distribution centre. He tells us that contributions have spiked through the past few weeks and this week he had to make two trips. In addition, a number of people made cash donations for the food bank.
It warms my heart that people have responded in this way. Doug's widow, Billie, has lost most of her sight due to macular degeneration so even though she still attends church regularly she can't see the full boxes. But I can tell her about the generosity of our members and others. I joke that Doug nagged me, but I'm glad he did. Sometimes we need to be nudged out of our complacency and busyness. Doug was a generous Christian in life and its good to know that he is having this impact in death.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Talking About Death Won't Kill You

It turned out that talking about death didn't kill anyone. A couple of evenings ago 30 people came together for our seminar on end of life issues. I really appreciated working with Dr. Deb Jefferson who in addition to her practice in Newcastle works in palliative care at Bowmanville hospital. She helped clarify some of the mysteries about dying and the importance of accepting the reality of death so that we and our loved ones can be honest and open as the end approaches.

Afterward one person told me she wished she had attended something like this a decade ago. She has gone through the death of her mother and her husband and in both instances a loving family was so focussed on recovery they missed some of the opportunities for meaningful goodbyes and the comfort of palliative care. In our discussion time another participant admitted that she doesn't talk about death because then maybe it just won't happen. We're probably all like that to a degree.

During the evening we distributed and looked at an Advance Care Plan, something we should all consider Another person noted that her Living Will is part of her legal will, which means it won't be read until after her death, so what good is it then. Excellent point! Families need to know a loved one's wishes in the present, not after they are gone.

I began the evening with the passage in John 14 where Jesus says farewell to his followers at the meal table. This has become such an iconic passage we might miss the simplicity of a conversation over food about an impending death. These are conversations we all need with family, physician, clergy.

Did you attend? Have you considered the process of dying, not just the moment and the funeral?

Do you have an Advance Care Plan? Will you be there for the Funeral Planning evening next week?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Flexible Faith

Did anyone else notice that Google acknowledged the 90th birthday anniversary of Gumby and Pokey creator Art Clokey yesterday? The flexible pair were staples of kids' television fare in the early sixties and Clokey and his wife, Ruth, was really the originator of clay animation.

There were plenty of articles about Clokey and his work with movies as well as G & P. I notice that virtually none of them talked about Clokey's other less famous creations, Davey and Goliath. This boy and his dog were the stars of fifteen minute episodes sponsored by the Lutheran church in the States. They explored spiritual issues for children without being "preachy" we're told. Since I was a lad during this period I remember both series.

It's good to recall that a denomination could sponsor a religious children's show without being doctrinaire. I wonder if it could still happen? Today we would probably be told that a specifically Christian show is offensive to some group (not necessarily by the group itself), even thought many existing shows are violent or all about targetting kids as consumers.

I know I have touched on this subject before, but any recollections of Gumby and Pokey, or Davey and Goliath? Did you even think about D & G being Christian?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wall St. Bull

God has marched on Wall Street, and that's no bull. You have probably heard about the protesters who have invaded the financial district of New York City. This grassroots, social media driven occupation is drawing attention to the financial fiasco in the United States which was precipitated by greedy money-movers and for which millions of ordinary people are paying with lost jobs and foreclosed mortgages. Religious leaders have joined the movement making the connection between the growing gap between rich and more and God's justice. Read this report.

On Sunday (Oct. 9), a diverse group of New York religious leaders marched to Zuccotti Square carrying a handmade golden calf fashioned to resemble the iconic bull statue near the New York Stock Exchange."We think Wall Street has become idolatrous," said the Rev. Donna Schaper, senior minister at New York's Judson Memorial Church and one of more than 50 clergy who joined the New York protest, independent of the chaplains group.

"I'm not saying God is against the people of Wall Street, but I think God is sick of Wall Street taking more than they deserve."Schaper explained that the group's guiding principle was the biblical "golden rule" -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- but stressed the interfaith aspect of the demonstration, noting that the march was followed by a prayer service featuring Christian, Jewish and Muslim speakers.

"The golden rule is not just one that Christians observe... it's a way that all major faiths can unite," Schaper said. "We plan to be (at the demonstration) every Sunday and pray with people and thank people for making incredible sacrifices on behalf of our nation."

The golden calf is a reference to the idol worshipped by the Jewish nomads making their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses goes up on the mountain to retrieve the Ten Commandments and returns to discover his brother Aaron is leading idol worship. The book of Exodus tells us that neither Moses nor God were amused.

Read more about the Protest Chaplains

Should religious leaders get involved in this sort of protest? Is it our job to point out injustices even when it is disruptive and controversial? Can you see me roaming the corner of Silver and King decrying the banks?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Did Your Garden Grow?

We received an email recently telling us that the community garden in which we share a plot with reader Brian is officially kaput. We were given a stay of execution for this summer and wondered if there would be another but the note told us to clear out anything we had left in our plots because the fences were coming down soon. So, on a glorious Monday afternoon we cut the last of the chard, pulled out the tomato cages and bid a fond farewell. For a couple of seasons we enjoyed a well organized community garden with rich organic soil. I mentioned before that it is disappearing so that a new French immersion school can be built, so it is a worthy cause. It's just sad that this garden must go. Ruth took a couple of parting photographs for posterity.

Christianity is a "gardeny" faith. Our story begins in the garden of Genesis, Jesus is encountered as the risen Christ in a garden, and there is a city garden at the end of Revelation. There is a thoughtful little book called The Fragrance of God by Vigen Guroian which includes a chapter The Ecological Garden, as well as a a devotional book called Your Spiritual Garden. Metaphors of steady growth and tending fit with the development of the spiritual life.

Are you a gardener? How did your garden grow this season? Do you see the connections between that growth and spiritual nurture?

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Take Nothing for Granted

This past week I had the annual "yikes, it's time to get my car license plate sticker!" moment. I used to buy two years at a time, but the car is now so old I would prefer three month increments.

The young woman in front of me in line went to the wicket and asked what it would cost her. She paused for a moment, then offered her debit card. The clerk noticed that her vehicle also needed an emissions test and the woman's face fell. How much will that be she wondered? Just $35 was the answer. This was no consolation. There was no "just" about it. The young woman said tearfully "I'm going to have to choose between groceries and the test. Why do they make it so hard for people on welfare?" She hurried out in tears. The clerk had not been unkind but at that moment life was cruel for the woman.

I felt badly for her and if it had been a matter of simply paying in the moment I would have offered her help. I could tell that her distress was real. I told my wife Ruth the story at supper and her response that this could have been one of dozens of clients who call her and meet with her as an outreach worker. She reminded me that not only do many people live from assistance cheque or support cheque to cheque, they "rob Peter to pay Paul" in a constant, desperate attempt to stay afloat.

I discovered that I too needed an emission check. I drove down the street, dropped off the car for a while, and shortly thereafter I paid up. No worries about where the money will come from or if I can afford it.

I am still unsettled by the drama that unfolded before me and I carry this simple blessing of relative financial security into Thanksgiving weekend. I can take nothing for granted and my gratitude to God needs to issue in compassion and generosity.

Any thoughts about Thanksgiving as we enter into the weekend?

Friday, October 07, 2011

It Comes to us All

Steve Jobs died. It's hard to imagine that you haven't heard this news by now. The co-founder and CEO of Apple died two days ago at the age of fifty six. The tributes have been relentless and the man truly was a genius of innovation, communication, and promotion of the products which have infiltrated our lives. I don't think of myself as an Apple junkie but we have an inherited Mac computer and my wife, Ruth, has an Iphone which seems to be able to do everything. So called "smart" phones and tablets are a result of his vision, even if we don't have an Apple product. Jobs was behind the company which became the most valuable in the world, at least for a moment, earlier this year.

Because of his immense personal wealth, estimated at eight billion dollars, he was able to buy the best medical care possible, but it only staved off his death from pancreatic cancer for a few years.

He will be missed by family and friends and the world has lost a remarkable human being but Steve Jobs died and we all die eventually, in case we have forgotten. He actually realized how precious life is, and spoke about it in his Stanford commencement address in 2005.

Why have we become less able to grasp this in our time? Are those of us who are Baby Boomers to blame? We try to stave off aging or joke about death rather than ask the important questions and look the Grim Reaper squarely in the eye.

At St. Paul's we are offering two evenings in October, one on End of Life Issues and the other on Funeral Planning. Dr. Deb Jefferson, who does palliative care work, is my presentation partner for the first session. Three funeral directors from three funeral homes will join me in a panel for the second. I'm looking forward to working with all of them. As I read How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin Nuland, Talking About Death Won’t Kill You by Virginia Morris and Last Rights by Stephen Kiernan I realize that we still aren't very good about having the important conversations with family, physicians and clergy, even though eternity is essential to our faith outlook. I would like to think these evenings will help.

How are you with addressing your own mortality and that of loved ones? Have you managed to have the necessary conversations with kith and kin? Too morbid? Too scary?

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Sunday afternoon was one of those "what hit me!' moments after a hectic morning. It was communion in worship, both choirs sang, lots of details to remember. Then we blessed animals, a lovely event but one which required me to move directly from one intense activity to another. From there I scurried to the basement where 15 or 16 Sunday School teachers and volunteers were eating lunch and preparing for the Fall. I spoke briefly to give some orientation to the church year, expressed appreciation then fired off to our fellowship room where another ten people were also eating lunch and strategizing in their roles as pastoral visitors. Again I spoke briefly, said thank you, and eventually went home.

Even though this meant I was running from 8:00 AM on, I finally stopped and assessed how fortunate we are to have the staff and committed laypeople who make our congregation what it is. Communion organizers and servers, choir members young and not so young, technical people on video, sound, and projection -- all doing an excellent job. While I attended the Sunday School and Pastoral visitor meetings, they were expertly coordinated by staff members Laura and Beth. Between the two groups more than twenty five people took time from their busy weeks to be at church for worship, then attend these meetings. Of course Doug and Allanah, our choir leaders, and Edna our custodian were on the job as well. Our office folk, Helen and Carol, were attending a conference for administrators and secretaries so they can continue to do their work effectively.

As we draw close to Thanksgiving I am very grateful for the paid staff of St. Paul's. But as those staff members we all know that this congregation simply will not flourish without those who find some place of Christian service (or two, or three.) It's easy to become fixated on what and who we don't have but really we are blessed.

Any comments or observations?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


Ah yes, another election. We have managed to pack animal, vegetable, and mineral, otherwise known as municipal, federal, and provincial into the past year so it's not just our imaginations that we have been asked to cast our ballots a lot lately. And it's not just here in Ontario. P.E.I just wrapped up its provincial election on Monday and Manitobans went to the polls yesterday. Next Tuesday it's Newfoundland and Labrador's turn.

For whom or what should we vote Thursday in Ontario? The Liberals have made some bad mistakes during eight years in power but they have experience in turbulent times. The Conservatives are grumpy and the major alternative in popular opinion, but I'm waiting for them to say something other than that the Liberals are fiends. The NDP have a likable but unseasoned leader who seems to be promising too much. The Greens are simply not in contention.

It would be easy to just stay at home but I won't, and I hope you won't either. I really don't like to go to the polling station holding my nose, but I feel that if I choose not to vote I'm giving way to apathy and cynicism, as the graffiti above suggests. Neither of these are Christian. I am in the hope business as a Christian leader, but it is also essential to our way of life as Jesus' followers. As I've said before, there was no such thing as democracy in his time, at least not as we know it, yet the freedom to choose for a greater good is surely an outcome of his vision of God's reign and universal justice.

Are you feeling a little jaded about elections in general? Will you cast your ballot, or did you given at least one reader in Manitoba? Do you connect being a person of faith with the freedom and responsibility of voting?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Radical Peacemaker

I don't do this often but here is a second blog for the day. On Sunday I spoke about St. Francis, inviting folk to consider his radical life as an enduring legacy for our time as well. I mentioned Shane Claiborne as a modern-day Francis. Claiborne has been doing important inner city work in Philadelphia with the poor and homeless. He came to speak at Rendez Vous, the conference attended by more than 600 United Church young people this past August.

Well, today, the Feast of St. Francis, Shane Claiborne has a piece in the Huffington Post on Francis of Assisi. Whaddya know. Take a look.

One Tree at a Time

Last week Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi of Kenya died of cancer at age seventy one. She was the founder of the Green Belt movement which eventually planted millions of trees across Africa and continues to do so. Her award in 2003 was hugely significant in that it was the first time the Peace Prize was awarded for making peace with the planet.

Ms. Maathi was a courageous woman. In the early days of the movement she and followers were beaten and jailed for protesting the clear-cutting of forests in her native Kenya, an activity supported by the government but which resulted in desertification. Her husband divorced her, essentially for being an "uppity" woman. But she persevered and brought about change which continues to make peace with the Earth. She has empowered countless rural African women who have been the heart and soul of the Green Belt movement.

Last year she published her book Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. The description of the book on the Green Belt website says "Maathai wants to impart that feeling to everyone, and believes that the key lies in traditional spiritual values: love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service. While educated in the Christian tradition, Maathai draws inspiration from many faiths, celebrating the Jewish mandate tikkun olam ("repair the world" and renewing the Japanese term mottainai ("don't waste"). Through rededication to these values, she believes, we might finally bring about healing for ourselves and the earth."

Her death is definitely a loss, but the movement continues.

Have you heard about Ms. Maathi? Are you impressed/inspired by story? How do we make sure that these stories of "tikkun olam" are told?

Monday, October 03, 2011

Higher Ground

We slipped into Toronto on Saturday afternoon to see the film Higher Ground. If you saw Up in the Air or Source Code you'll know the acting work of the star and director Vera Farmiga. How many actresses can claim they spurned the affections of George Clooney as she did in Up in the Air?

Higher Ground is the story of a young woman, Corinne, who marries in her teens and with her new husband becomes involved in a fundamentalist Christian group. For years she is content with the authoritarian and patriarchal approach to faith. But when she wants to explore the world through art and literature, to formulate and offer spiritual insights, to question God's benevolence when a dear friend gets sick, the dissonance begins and grows.

This is not a film that stereotypes fundamentalist Christianity in part because Farmiga grew up in a Pentecostal family. While she no longer shares the faith of her parents she is willing to treat the subject with respect. Ruth and I grew up in mainline churches but during our teens we both spent time and we would say flourished in more conservative Christian groups. Eventually we moved on because our minds mattered and there were aspects of this approach which were stifling. We enjoyed Higher Ground because it rang true in many ways. We laughed out loud as Corinne attempts to induce "speaking in tongues" in front of the bathroom mirror. We were moved by other scenes of both devotion and doubt. We would certainly recommend it.

I sometimes wonder how we can find our way between mainline "whatever" or "when it works for me" faith, and fundamentalist "we have all the answers" faith.

Have any of you experienced immersion (no pun intended) in conservative Christianity? Do you think mainliners are guilty of stereotypes of conservatives and fundamentalists? Have you seen this film?

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Something Fishy Going On

The weather just didn't cooperate this morning for an outdoor Blessing of the Animals. It was cold and by the end of worship the rain was teeming down. I thought of cancelling but I encouraged folk to bring their companion critters anyway, and they did. Gathering in the hall there weren't as many pets as usual but we still had lots of dogs, a rabbit named Cottonball and a fish named Pip. Well, Pip, the tropical fish, was as home but her tween parent asked if I would do the blessing in absentia. And I did.

Some of the dogs have been part of every blessing at St. Paul's and one of the Golden Retrievers had a recent encounter with a skunk. I didn't notice until I stooped for the blessing -- I knelt, he smelt.

Two of the pooches were recently acquired puppies and they were adorable. Another is a young dog whose owner told me tearfully that he wasn't long for this world because of seizures. But that was back in January, and there he was to receive God's blessing once again. Medication has given him a new lease on life.

I read a note from retired vet Rich who reflected on his own menagerie and his sense of loss now that he is no longer working with animals on a daily basis. He couldn't be with us but his voice was heard.

As I come to each animal in the circle I see the love and pride in the humans who share life with them. It is a lovely moment, even when there is a trace of skunk.


Saturday, October 01, 2011

Just Say No

When I was in Colorado for the Presbyterians for Earth Care conference all the talk was about the protests in Washington against the Keystone pipeline. This pipeline will take Alberta oil sludge to Texas for refining. It was strange to be the lone Canadian in the group. I actually feel that the oil sands project is an environment mess and that we are "selling our birthright for a mess of potage" to use an old expression. But you know what its like -- we can diss our own family members but we get annoyed when someone outside the clan does! After all, Americans love their cheap gasoline and big vehicles, so why dump the blame on us? In truth we all love our fossil fuels along with the other stuff made from oil. There is hardly a product out there these days that isn't made from plastic or wrapped in it.

But I digress. This past week protests moved to Parliament Hill, although the turnout wasn't anything like what happened in Washington. There was an open letter to Prime Minister Harper written by eight Nobel Peace Prize winners including former archbishop Desmond Tutu, asking that the Tar/Oil Sands project be curtailed.

What do you think about this letter? Are they overstepping their bounds? After all, these individuals were celebrated for other accomplishments, not their expertise on extracting oil. Or do we need recognizable leaders using their credibility to challenge what they believe is a less than peaceful relationship with the planet? Different denominations, including the United Church have raised concerns about the Oil Sands but sprightly Desmond Tutu will always get better media coverage.